Music & Photography – How Exactly Do They Relate?

It’s no secret that music and photography share many similarities. Both are forms of artistic expression that appeal to a large number of people but leave enough room for everyone to make sense of it in their unique way.

Although we’re free to interpret a track or a picture on our own, it’s equally intriguing to find out the creators’ thoughts or moods toward the pieces they created. This adds an extra layer of experience that can make looking at a photo or listening to a song more interesting!

Music & Photography — How Exactly Do They Relate?

When we think of the connection between music and photography, one iconic name often comes up in any discussion: Ansel Adams.

Ansel Adams spent his formative years obsessively training to become a concert pianist.

Although he eventually abandoned his musical aspirations, the piano taught him a great deal about discipline, technique, accuracy, structure, and the value of persistent practice and repetition.

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When reminiscing about his transition into photography during a 1984 interview conducted by Milton Esterow (Editor, ARTnews), Adams reflected:

Study in music gave me a fine basis for the discipline of photography. I’d have been a real Sloppy Joe if I hadn’t had that.

When asked to elaborate, he added:

Well, in music, you have this necessary discipline from the very beginning. And you are constructing various shapes and controlling values. Your notes have to be accurate, or else there’s no use playing. There’s no casual approximation.

Adams revealed that he would often hear music while photographing (not in the sentimental sense, but structurally):

You see relationships of shapes. I would call it a design sense. It’s the beginning of seeing what the photograph is.

Much like a musician, being adept at multi-sensory processing can be considered a desired attribute in any photographer.

It has been shown to speed our reactions, help us identify objects, and heighten our overall awareness and sensitivities—allowing us to perceptually (and intuitively) make sense of our world.

So, what is it about the synergy between photography and music that makes them so interchangeable, so undeniably linked? Photographers often talk about creating visual music in much the same way that a musical artist might describe the visual imagery conjured up with a song.

For example, you may have heard musicians sometimes refer to chords, harmonies, and notes as shapes and colors.

Music & Photography — How Exactly Do They Relate?

How to become a music photographer?

You may have attended a concert and seen photographers shooting the show in the photo pit. Or perhaps you’ve taken photos with your phone as a fan and wonder how you can take the next step and shoot with a photo pass. There are no written rules, but for sure, many photographers agree in having some common ground.

1. Practice

The way to a career in music photography is through music photography. Concert photography is a craft, and practice is needed to perfect any craft. You might already be a great photographer, but that doesn’t guarantee that you are an expert in this field. Therefore, start attending as many live music events as you can. And make sure to bring your camera!

The more concerts you shoot, the better your photography will grow over time, and the better you’ll get to know your camera.

2. Digitalization

While you’re practicing your concert photography skills, make sure you post them to your social media accounts and your online portfolio. Both are essential for getting your name and your work out there.

The internet is where many musicians and management companies find photographers for tours, so use it to put your best foot forward.

3. Portfolio

The internet is where many musicians and management companies find photographers for tours, so use it to put your best foot forward.

4. Contacts

Get out and interact with the music community. New bands are always looking for professional photographers. Use those connections to build your portfolio, get more sessions, and refine your craft.

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Basic tips for starting into music photography

Here are a few tips to help you further down the path ahead.

  1. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Any idea is worth it to be pitched.
  2. You don’t need the most expensive gear. While you will need more professional equipment as you progress, you can start with basic gear.
  3. Use Social Media. This is a good way to stand out from the crowd and to start marketing yourself.
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Camera settings

How to capture the rawness of a sound as it resonates from the amps? This has been the quest of music photographers from the early days of punk and hip hop to more iconic shots of rock and pop stars of the 60s and 70s. Capturing a sound is impossible, but capturing a feeling is another story.

Exposure

Manual exposure is going to be your best bet for concert photography. Due to the large dynamic range of a concert and very bright lights and deep shadows, any camera-metered mode can be easily fooled and produce poor exposures.

As a result, manual mode is a much more consistent way of exposing images over auto modes like aperture priority or shutter priority.

Metering

There can be some benefit to using Evaluative Metering (Canon) or Matrix metering (Nikon) for concerts where the same light lights large parts of the stage as the performer.

In manual exposure mode, these evaluative metering modes can be used as a useful, passive reference while shooting, unlike spot metering, which requires actively selecting a metering point and cannot be used as unobtrusively.

Aperture

This one is easy. Shoot wide open at the largest aperture you can with your lens. This will be the f-stop with the smallest value, which means that the lightest will get to the sensor.

Even the most brightly lit concerts are dim compared to daylight, so a wide aperture is needed to gather as much light as possible.

Shutter speed

When possible, try to shoot at 1/250 or faster, but this is often only a luxury for larger, well-lit shows. For smaller club shows, when lighting may be mediocre, you can also use a range between 1/100-1/200 as a minimum for the shutter speed.

This range is fast enough to freeze a fair degree of motion and eliminate most major camera shake, all without needing a ton of light. Below 1/100, there’s a greater chance for blur in images, particularly with faster moving bands.

ISO

ISO levels up to 3200 will produce very good quality for almost all DSLR cameras. For compact P&S cameras, 1600 and lower will produce the best results. All this said, when light is finite (which is almost always for indoor concert photography), do not hesitate to crank up the ISO to whatever produces the best exposure.

This is especially true when either ISO or shutter speed must change to achieve a proper exposure. It’s better to take more digital noise/grain over a blurry image. Crank the ISO.

AF-Setting

I shoot with Al Servo on my Canons, which is the same as AF-C (continuous) on Nikons.

White balance

Auto. I shoot Auto White-Balance about 99% of the time. While shooting with a preset white balance will offer better image quality if you know the exact values to use, the opportunity and ability to precisely set a Kelvin value during live music are limited at best.

Setting WB in post makes for much faster shooting – high speed, low drag.

Music

Personal testimonial (playing from home, shooting on-site)

I have been a professional photographer for several years, but regarding music, I just decided to learn how to play an instrument a few months ago.

Like many content creators, COVID stopped all my international assignments (I specialize in NGO-Documentary photography). Therefore, I took this opportunity to put my creativity behind the computer more often than I ever did before.

This means that I cached up with my workload that wasn’t edited completely, optimized my workflow, enhanced my website and personal marketing, or planned new projects to be kicked-off after the pandemic.

Being clustered at home is tricky, as sometimes time flies, and one doesn’t realize how many hours a person can spend looking at the monitor. Taking pauses and focusing on other activities is a healthy exercise. I realized that learning how to play a musical instrument is a good distractor and a positive exercise as well.

In the same regard, it triggers creativity that is also linked with visual possibilities, as I explained at the beginning of this article when mentioning how music and photography relate to each other.

The second motivation and the most important is that I recently had the joy of becoming a dad, and the idea of playing a song for my baby triggered the passion for learning how to play the guitar. The problem of executing this idea is that we live in a small apartment, our baby is just a few months old, my wife works full time from home, and we are all limited by quarantine restrictions. So, how to proceed without disturbing everyone?

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The solution

As a said, I’m just a beginner, and my knowledge about guitars is quite limited. However, I found out that the Yamaha SLG200 is the perfect solution, and I would want to share this advice with anyone under similar circumstances. This is a silent guitar that reduces the volume of a traditional acoustic guitar by 80%.

However, suppose you plug it into your headphones or an amp. In that case, Yamaha’s guitar offers a naturally warm acoustic tone, with great quality that can be blended and tweaked to your liking thanks to the myriad of controls. The whole body looks beautifully futuristic and extremely lightweight, which makes it very convenient for traveling and everyday use.

I will conclude by saying that this was the right decision as everyone wins: the baby doesn’t wake up, I don’t disturb the neighbors or my wife while she is working from home, I can easily move around with it, and keep practicing without worries when I’m not focusing into photography.

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An Extra Help

2020 was a tough year, but at least it woke up another passion that I didn’t know I had before: playing the guitar. As a beginner, the following gadgets have been very convenient, and I’m sure that they can also be useful for pros.

  1. Shure AONIC 50: I was looking to upgrade my headphones for a while as I use them for everything: commuting, editing, and now I had an extra reason for plugging them into my guitar. After extensive research, I concluded that Shure’s AONIC 50 were the perfect match for several reasons. The Noise Cancelling system is outstanding to immerse myself in an uninterrupted listening experience at home or in the outdoors. They are very comfortable, and when I’m not using them for playing the guitar, I have them over my ears for hours when editing my images.
  2. Soundbrenner Core: This is not only a smartwatch. It’s a wrist-mounted Swiss Army knife for musicians. It includes a haptic metronome that can be heavily customized – either on the watch or via the app – to include downbeats and accents. These emphasized beats can even be color-coded to flash the watch’s LED ring for visual reference. As a beginner, it’s a fantastic tool for learning to keep rhythm correctly. If you are a pro, it will also help practice or for live performances. Of course, Soundbrenner’s gadget also doubles a smartwatch with real-life notifications.
  3. Roadie 3: This is an automatic instrument tuner. It helps you find your sound fast with quicker rotation and enhanced accuracy to keep your tunings consistently dead-on. I don’t have a trained ear, and for sure, this is quite useful for tuning the guitar without any issue in seconds. As I progress, having an electric guitar could be an alternative to consider, and the Roadie 3 works for any string instrument with a guitar machine head. This includes electric, acoustic, classical, and steel guitars, ukuleles, banjos, mandolins, and more.
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Famous Musicians Who Are Also Photographers

We opened this article with Ansel Adams, one of the most relevant photographers who also shared a passion for music and a talented piano player. It is worth remembering some iconic musicians who get very creative behind the camera in the same regard.

Moby – Most known for his catchy, electronic tunes, like “South Side” with Gwen Stefani, and his unique DJing style, Moby is quite the diverse musician. Quite the diverse artist, really, since a large part of his passion lies in photography, and he’s pretty darn good at it. You can see more of his photos here.

Lou Reed – A singer of Velvet Underground and a brilliant solo artist, Lour Reed, left us in 2013. But he left a legacy in his music, photos, and photography books. You can see his photographic work here or purchase his book and enjoy it while listening to any of his albums.

Mick Fleetwood – Mick Fleetwood is a drummer and co-founder of the rock band Fleetwood Mac. In addition to being a drummer, he is also an actor and a very keen photographer. You can see his photographic and other work on his website.

Michael Stipe – If you’re not sure who he is, does “Losing My Religion” ring a bell? Michael is a singer of the alternative rock group R.E.M. When he’s not losing his religion and making music, he is taking photos and making collages. You can see more of his work here.

Bryan Adams – Famous Canadian singer-songwriter is not limited only to talent for music. He’s also a respected photographer who had his work featured in various magazines, created marketing campaigns, and had his photos exhibited worldwide. Along with other photographers from the Commonwealth, In 2002, Adams was invited to photograph Queen Elizabeth II during her Golden Jubilee. You can see his photographic work here.

Andy Summers – Apart from being a guitar player of the band The Police, Andy is also famous for his photographic work. In the past 30 years, he’s had 35 photography exhibitions all over the world. His photography is inspired by his music, and it’s often a bit moody. Just as I love The Police, I have to say I love Andy’s photos, too.

Bill Wyman – He is the former bass player of one of the greatest rock n roll bands of all time, The Rolling Stones. And as if a lustrous career as a musician weren’t enough, Bill is also very successful as an inventor and photographer. He’s taken photos throughout his carrier and had them displayed all over the world. He also sells prints, and if you want to learn more about his work, visit an exhibition or buy a print, you can find all information here.

David Byrne – If you don’t know him simply by name (which I doubt), you may know him as singer and guitarist of Talking Heads. He’s a man of distinctive voice and unique style. Apart from being a successful and prolific musician, he is talented and successful in many other fields as well. As you can imagine, photography is among them. David had his photos displayed in many galleries in different parts of the world, and you can see some of them here.

Graham Nash – If you listen to classic rock music from the ’60s and ’70s, you’ve probably heard of Crosby, Stills, Nash (& Young). Graham Nash is a singer and guitarist of this folk-rock supergroup. In addition to his wonderful voice and guitar playing skills, he is also very keen on photography. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website.

Julian Lennon – I doubt there’s anyone who hasn’t heard of John Lennon. Julian Lennon is his older son, who got the talents from his father. He is a musician of a beautiful voice who has issued six studio albums since 1984. But music is not his only passion. He’s also very devoted to photography and very talented, if I may say. You can see more of his work here.

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